TOKYO — Simone Biles rolled her eyes. She shrugged her shoulders. She scrunched up her face and winced.
One look at her revealed all that you needed to know about how the U.S. women’s team fared Sunday during qualifying at the Tokyo Games. And none of it was good for the team that had dominated the sport for more than a decade.
With uncharacteristic mistakes, including many by Biles, the best gymnast in history, the U.S. team finished behind Russia in qualifying. It wasn’t close, either, with more than a point difference between the countries.
The Americans can still come back Tuesday in the final to win the gold medal because the slate is wiped clean for that event. In that competition, the United States will try to keep its winning streak alive. The team has not lost a world championship or an Olympics team event since 2010 and is trying to win its third straight Olympic gold medal.
“This might be a great awakening for us, and we’ll take advantage of it,” Tom Forster, the women’s national team coordinator, said after congratulating Russia for its performance. He said that the Russians edged the Americans because they were “cleaner and had more depth,” and that the U.S. team made mental mistakes because of nerves.
With Tuesday’s team final expected to be a battle, possibly decided by a slim margin, Forster defended the rationale he used to choose the Olympic team of four gymnasts. At first, he had said he and the selection committee would use computer modeling to calculate which gymnasts’ scores from nationals and trials would put them in best position to win the team event in Tokyo.
But when the trials ended, Forster and the selection committee simply picked the top four overall finishers in the all-around, even though the fifth-place finisher, MyKayla Skinner, had shown high scores in the vault, where the Americans needed help. Grace McCallum, who was fourth at trials, was picked instead.
“As a committee, we didn’t think it was worth changing the integrity of the process for a couple of tenths,” Forster said at the time.
As it turns out, the U.S. team might need those tenths after all. Skinner ended up finishing higher in the overall Sunday than McCallum, by 0.233 points. Forster said that in retrospect he wouldn’t have changed his team roster and that he still feels good about it.
“I just want to reemphasize that anybody out there who complained that USA Gymnastics only thought about medals, that was not the point,” said Forster, who took over as head of the national team after the Lawrence Nassar sexual abuse scandal roiled the sport.
Nassar, the longtime national team doctor, molested hundreds of girls and women — including Biles and many of her former teammates — under the guise of medical treatment.
“My job is to provide a culture and an environment that allows athletes to do their best and hope that their best is medal-worthy,” Forster said.
While the U.S. team is still medal-worthy, on Sunday it strayed far from its usual dominance, with Biles making error after surprising error even as the team looked relaxed and casual on the arena floor, with no fans in the stands because of COVID-19 restrictions.
On the floor exercise, Biles flew so far out of bounds on one tumbling pass that she slid right off the competition surface. On her first vault, a half-twist onto the vault into a front layout with 1-1/2 twists, she stepped off the mat on her landing. Her day ended on the balance beam, where she took one giant step and several smaller ones on her dismount. It was a flawed way to end day one of her Olympics, but she laughed and pulled at the front of her leotard afterward, looking as if she had made meaningless mistakes in a meaningless practice.
In quotes provided by the Olympic News Service, Biles said the U.S. team needed to work on “little things.”
“I feel we did a pretty good job,” she said, adding that the team is “striving for top three” in the team final.
Forster said that Olympic jitters caused the problems for Biles and for many others on the team, and felt especially sad for Jordan Chiles, who is Biles’ teammate and had been a model of consistency all year. Chiles finished 40th in the all-around and ended her day in tears after her balance beam routine. She had fallen twice, once during an acrobatic series and again on her dismount.
Chiles, Biles and the rest of the U.S. team did not stop to talk to the group of reporters waiting for them after their event, leaving Forster to speak for them about their individual performances and the team’s overall subpar day.
“That’s what it is sometimes,” Forster said, referring specifically to Chiles. “Just like in any other sport, great athletes drop the ball in the end zone or a quarterback throws an interception.”
While the team’s overall performance was relatively poor, Biles and Sunisa Lee, who performed a stunning uneven bars routine, still finished high enough in the all-around to qualify for the final later in the week. Biles finished first in the all-around. Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade was second, just ahead of Lee.
For now, though, Forster only spoke to reporters about the team final. And even then, he didn’t speak much at all. After about 7 minutes, he brusquely said, “I’m done.” And walked off.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.